The history of the Oblates contains some accounts of sudden conversion, not unlike that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. The life of Brother François Leriche offers a typical example.
A call from the Blessed Virgin
At the age of fifteen, this restless child from Mayenne, near Brittany, joined the circus and became a professional showman. He played the violin, did a few acrobatic stunts in a clown costume, and made people laugh. This adventurous life alienated him from his Christian life. For several years, he abandoned all practice of religion. He no longer set a foot in church. However, one day, somewhat by chance, he heard a sermon on the Blessed Virgin that made him reflect seriously. “See the star, and invoke Mary” the preacher repeated many times, with conviction. François decided to change his life. From that moment he evolved into a model of piety and devoted himself to the good works of his parish. But he wasn’t satisfied with this regular and peaceful life. He wanted to do more in order to “redeem himself completely” as he would say.
Bishop Grandin accepts him
In 1867, Bishop Vital Grandin, missionary bishop in Canada, passed through Aron, the site of François’ native parish. The new convert was then forty-five years old. He assisted at the religious profession of young Oblates. On this occasion, the one who was known as “l’évêque pouilleux” (the abjectly poor bishop) preached on vocations. “My good friends, if you want to come with me, do not forget that your life will be one long martyrdom. If you come only for my sake, you will not last. But if you come for God, He alone will reward you, as He has promised.” Nothing more was needed to attract the former showman. He sought out Bishop Grandin and offered to follow him. The prelate hesitated, because of aspirant’s age, and the fact that he had to take care of his elderly sick mother.
François insisted. He won the Sisters of the Poor to his side. The nuns were ready to receive and care for his mother until her death, for 100 Francs per year. The Bishop was ready to accept responsibility for this annual payment, but he was still hesitant. On the following morning, to his great surprise, he saw Leriche taking his mother, with infinite precautions, up to the hospice in a wheelbarrow. Deeply moved, Bishop Grandin accepted the candidate at once. “We can count on him” mused the bishop, “for he loves his mother.”
Grace does the rest
They were supposed to leave from the port of Brest. But facing the vastness of the ocean, Leriche lost his courage. He began to think of returning home. By God’s Grace, a blessed inspiration led him to the local church to seek a final counsel from the pastor. Seeing this poor man who intended to flee in the face of the unknown, the priest was thinking of sending him away in peace. But then the idea came to ask this frightened man with whom had he intended to embark. Leriche responded: “With Bishop Grandin.” “With Bishop Grandin? That’s different, my good friend, leave without hesitation, because Bishop Grandin is a saint.” That argument won the day, and Leriche left for the Northern missions.
As he was already a competent blacksmith, François soon learned the skills required of a carpenter, tinsmith, hunter, gardener, and sacristan. With his simplicity and good humor, his devotion and all-round knowhow, he won the confidence of the Amerindians in the mission. After becoming an Oblate Brother he enriched his meetings with them by teaching them catechism and their prayers. On Sundays especially, during recreation time, he became the old showman once again. Wearing a multi-colored shirt, with his violin he improvised scenes from former times, imitating traveling peddlers, lamenting, singing and dancing.
For thirty-two years this valiant missionary proved that Bishop Grandin had been right in accepting him for the Congregation. He died peacefully, on June 12, 1899, at Saint-Albert. Brother Leriche bore his name well: he was poor in material goods, but rich in merits and virtues.
André DORVAL, OMI